Getting the RTI right

The murder of Bhupendra Vira in Mumbai on October 17 followed a long-held pattern. The 61-year-old, who used the Right to Information (RTI) Act to unearth information about illegal construction, was shot after the information led the police to file charges against a politician and his son. Vira is the latest RTI activist to pay with his life for the "crime" of demanding information. Since the Act came into force in 2005, at least 51 individuals, including 17 women, have been murdered and another five persons allegedly driven to suicide by harassment in assaults linked to seeking information under the RTI Act. This is in addition to the hundreds of cases where applicants and their families have been assaulted, harassed and threatened. Maharashtra, with 10 such murders, and Gujarat, with eight, lead the states where such incidents have occurred, but there has been violence against RTI activists all over India.

The right to information is considered a basic human right in international law. The UN Commission on Human Rights says: "Access to information is basic to the democratic way of life. The tendency to withhold information from people at large is to be strongly checked." The RTI Act was implemented after a long battle. Over four million RTI applications are filed every year. Despite under-staffed information commissions, and delays and obfuscation that is now customary, the RTI Act has empowered citizens to hold officials and politicians accountable. It has exposed many scams such as the Adarsh Housing scam in Mumbai. The information has often exposed the nexus among politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.

The murders and assaults make it evident that people seeking information under the RTI Act are not adequately protected by the government even though several remedies have been suggested. These range from keeping the names and personal details of applicants confidential to putting the requested information directly in the public domain, assuming, of course, that the request is considered fair. The justification for the first suggestion is obvious. There is also merit in putting information directly in the public domain as it obviates duplication of applications, at the same time protecting applicants who need not expose themselves as targets while publicising the information. Direct publication would also prevent the misuse of the RTI Act as a tool for blackmail.

But a crucial structural gap is that India does not have a specific privacy law, or a data protection Act. The Calcutta High Court has suggested that RTI applicants need not disclose any personal details, other than, say, a post office box number, or an anonymous email id, as a point of contact. The court said: "It would be the solemn duty of the authorities to hide such information so that people at large would not know of the applicant's personal details." However, this suggestion is not binding in law. As things stand, the RTI format requires the applicant to provide his complete name and postal address. There is legal ambiguity about the need to keep personal details confidential. In practice, the RTI request is often passed around among relevant government departments with all the applicants' details becoming public. In the analogous UK's Freedom of Information Act, applicants' names are always blanked out, even in communications between government departments and in public uploads of responses to queries.

Things could get worse in this regard since the Whistleblowers Protection Act pending in the Rajya Sabha has many amendments that prohibit the reporting of corruption-related disclosures under 10 different categories. This would dilute the RTI Act in scope. Moreover, the Whistleblowers Act does not provide explicit privacy and protection to RTI applicants. This is one of many areas where the need for a specific privacy law and data protection law is acute. The RTI Act was a huge improvement in transparency of governance. But instead of following through to strengthen the RTI Act and protect applicants, successive governments have tried to dilute its provisions. This reluctance is, to say the least, retrogressive and disappointing.

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